Why we should drink more pudding wine
Dessert wines carry a certain opprobrium in these sugar-policed times. Surely, dry is sophisticated and the days of ‘a little sweet white for the lady, sir?’ are decently consigned to history? Actually, the amount of sugar per litre in a good dessert wine is similar to what you find in freshly squeezed orange or apple juice and lower (obviously) than in grape juice. If you avoid dessert wines, you’re missing out on some of the most exquisite experiences in the whole world of taste. And, because they’re unfashionable, they’re extraordinarily good value.
The matching of dessert wines can be complicated (we’ll come to Christmas pudding later). One should also bear in mind that sweet wines go very well with a wide range of savoury dishes, from foie gras and Vacherin cheese to jamón ibérico. A rule of thumb is that the level of sweetness of pudding and dessert wine should be reasonably matched. And then there’s the balance of creamy richness and fresh tartness. The greatest dessert wines perform a marvellous balancing act between sweetness and acidity.
The most famous dessert wine in the world, by a distance, is Château D’Yquem from Sauternes, 25 miles south-east of Bordeaux. My opportunities to taste this nectar have been limited and the price tag is a disincentive, but, if you’re prepared to accept Sauternes or Barsac (its near neighbour) from slightly less elevated sources, you have many attractive options.
The best Sauternes and Barsac is made by leaving Sémillon, Sauvignon and Muscadelle grapes on the vine well into the damp autumn, so as to invite the attentions of Botrytis cinerea, the ‘noble rot’ that concentrates their sweetness, aromas and acidity, then to make repeated ‘passes’ through the vineyards to select the partially shrivelled berries.
I was hugely impressed by Château Liot 2010 (£13.49 per 37.5cl; www.waitrose.com), a Sauternes from the Haut-Barsac plateau. This may only be the equivalent of a cru bourgeois red Bordeaux, but has terrific botrytis-marked intensity, a lusciously rich texture and a long, well-balanced finish. In a quite different style, from a lighter year, but one of the top properties in the region, is Château Coutet 2002 (£26.90; www.bbr.com). Although 2002 was a difficult year in Sauternes and Barsac, here is an elegant, golden-coloured, mature wine with a lovely, marmaladey combination of sweetness and Seville-orange bitterness, if not quite the botrytised intensity of a great vintage.
But pudding wine isn’t just about these famous Bordeaux styles. Marvellous sweet wines are made in the Loire valley, especially on the steep slopes of Coteaux du Layon, from Chenin grapes. Chenin has naturally high acidity, so the resulting balance, as in the superb Coteaux du Layon Premier Cru Chaume Domaine des Forges 2011 (£8.49 per 37.5cl; www.waitrose.com) is even finer and fresher, with spicy apple and floral notes, honeyed richness, cleansing acidity and slightly lower alcohol. The price is absurdly low.
Excellent dessert wines from Chenin are also made in South Africa; the extra sweetness comes not from botrytis, but from drying the grapes for a month or so on straw mats (a method also used in Italy). The results, as in Rustenberg Straw Wine 2011 (£13.49 per 37.5cl; www.waitrose.com) can be exceptionally good rich and russet-apple ripe, but also delightfully fresh.
For me, the world’s most exquisitely poised dessert wines come, not from France or South Africa, but from often overlooked Germany. Riesling, like Chenin, has high acidity, so the grapes can reach super ripeness (aided by botrytis or by freezing in the case of Eiswein), while maintaining a pristine purity and freshness. No one achieves this better than the great J. J. Prüm estate in the Mosel; its Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Auslese 2010 (£53.46; www.justerinis.com) is a Mozartian miracle of green-apple and white-peach freshness, mineral concentration, purity, depth and length sheer heaven.
And so, finally, we come to the Christmas-pudding conundrum. The answer came at a recent tasting: it’s Pedro Ximénez (PX for short) from either Jerez or Montilla-Moriles. Don PX Pedro Ximénez Gran Reserva Montilla-Moriles Toro Albalá 1986 (£16 per 37.5cl; www.tanners-wines.co.uk) is by far the best example of this intense, treacly style I’ve come across. The richness and sweetness are extreme, but there’s also perfume and even freshness to leave you not cloyed, but ready for more.